13 Questions For 2013 In The World Of Online Advertising

questionsCross-posted at my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

For the past few years, I’ve offered predictions here and on The New Persuaders for what’s likely to come in the next year. This year, I’m going to shake it up and throw out a few questions instead. I think I know the answers to some of them, but if many won’t be answered definitively by year-end, they remain top of mind for me and probably for many others in online media and advertising.

So in this, the first full week of the new year, here are some questions to which I hope to start finding answers:

* Will image advertising finally take off online? I have to believe that as people spend more and more time online instead of reading print publications and watching TV, brand marketers will want and need to reach them there with ads that are aimed at creating consideration for later purchases, not just eliciting an immediate sale like Google’s search ads and too many banner ads. We’re already starting to see signs of such advertising with the early success of Facebook’s Sponsored StoriesTwitter’s Promoted Tweets, and YouTube’s TrueView ads–not to mention the explosion of tablets, which provide a lean-back experience more compatible with image advertising. This won’t be a sudden change, since brand marketers and agencies don’t move quickly, but you can’t tell me there aren’t going to be increasingly compelling ways for brands to influence people online.

* Can advertisers and publishers make ads more personal without scaring people? That’s the $64 billion question, and it likely won’t get answered in full this year. It’s easy for headline-hungry politicians to make a big deal out of Facebook’s latest privacy gaffe or the Wall Street Journal’s or the New York Times’ latest scare story about an ad that followed somebody all over the Web. That’s especially so since Facebook really does push the privacy envelope too far at times, and too many advertisers idiotically chase one more sales conversion at the cost of scaring off hundreds of others or inviting onerous legislation. But making ads more useful to each individual person is not only crucial to online commerce, it’s potentially better for most consumers as well–seriously, I don’t need to see another ad for a fitness center or a new credit card, but that ad for Camper van Beethoven’s new CD had me in a split-second. The answer lies in these two words, everyone: transparency and choice.

* Will mobile advertising work? Well, some of it already does, to hear Google and Facebook tell it. And while those already devalued digital dimes so far turn to pennies when it comes to ads on smartphones and tablets, this still feels more like growing pains than a crisis in online advertising. Sure, the screens are small and people don’t like to be interrupted in their mobile cocoons. So a different kind of advertising is probably needed–clearly, banners don’t cut it on a four-inch screen. But the value to advertisers of knowing your location and maybe the apps you’re using, coupled with knowledge of what your friends like–all with permission, of course–is huge. That permission may be really tough to earn. But if advertisers can offer tangible value, perhaps in the form of useful services related to what you’re doing or looking for or shopping for–and isn’t that the ultimate native ad?–people may loosen their hold on that information.

I have a lot more questions, but I’ve got to stop before too much of 2013 is gone.

Check out more questions at the full post.

Why Do Obama Supporters Appear In Facebook Ads As Romney Fans?

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Recently, I’ve been seeing a Sponsored Story ad on Facebook pages indicating that several friends “like” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. No surprise there. Sponsored Stories are those personalized ads the social network allows advertisers to run that show friends have “liked” a brand, and they’re increasingly common as Facebook doubles down on social advertising.

But what on Earth was the name of a friend, who I know is a vocal Obama supporter, doing on a Romney ad? The answer raises questions about how effective, or at least how accurate, these ads are–not necessarily due to a particular fault by Facebook but thanks to the byzantine rules and privacy features that have developed over years of user outrage and resulting Facebook accommodations.

Anyway, I asked my friend if he knew he was shilling for Romney. His response:

“Lol…..I liked him so I could see his FB feed. You should read my comments.” [Hint: They’re not complimentary.]

To be clear, you can see Romney’s posts on his page without “liking” him, but to see them in your own news feed, you need to “like” him. And once you do, like it or not, you become potential fodder for an ad that will appear to your friends.

Another friend of a friend who’s an Obama supporter also was surprised to see his name on a Romney ad. He told his friend:

“I never liked his page. I commented on one of their crazy lies.. gave them a serious piece of my mind ya know!!!!! All kinds of people have been telling me why do u like Mitt???? I’m pissed!!!” …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Facebook’s Mobile App Install Ads Get Moving

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Exhortations to install apps are likely a significant chunk of Facebook’s advertising revenues, and now they’re poised to become an even bigger factor in the social network’s future. Today, two months after offering app install ads for mobile devices to a select group of app developers and their marketing partners, Facebook opened up the ads to anyone.

These ads appear right in people’s mobile news feeds, providing prime placement for games and other apps in Apple’s App Store for iPhones and iPads and Google’s Play store for Android devices. Not surprisingly, Facebook says in a blog post that mobile app install ads are already working:

In early results, beta partners like Kabam, Fab, TinyCo and Big Fish were able to reach a more relevant audience and efficiently drive installs. For example, TinyCo saw 50% higher CTRs and significantly higher conversion rates compared to their current mobile channels, as well as a significant increase in player engagement.

A select subset of Preferred Marketing Developers (PMDs) has been testing mobile app install ads and saw similarly positive results. For example, Nanigans’ clients efficiently achieved 8-10x the reach compared to other mobile ad buys. Ad Parlor saw consistent CTR’s from news feed of 1-2% from engaged users looking for iPhone and Android games that their friends were playing.

No doubt those numbers will come down as the novelty factor in any new ad or feature wears off. Still, even a fraction of those results would still be valuable to advertisers.

That’s assuming–and this is a fair assumption given Facebook’s wariness about ad overload–that the company doesn’t go over the top and overload people’s mobile news feeds with the ads. Avoiding overload is especially important for these ads because unlike many of Facebook’s marquee ads, they don’t have a social component, meaning they appear strictly in response to developers paying for them, not because a friend liked an app.

Too many of these ads that don’t have the appeal of a friend’s connection, and the dreaded banner blindness is likely to set in.

There also more coming to improve these ads, according to Facebook engineer Vijaye Raji:

In coming months, we’ll continue to make updates that improve the user experience and the performance of mobile app install ads. For example, you may be able to customize your ad unit based on your audience, ensure that your ads are only shown to people who have not installed your app on iOS or Android devices, and allow people to start installing your app without leaving Facebook.

Facebook’s New Gift Service: Nice, But Not Yet An E-Commerce Game Changer

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Just in time for prime gift-giving holidays like Friday’s World Rabies Day (or if you prefer, Ask A Stupid Question Day), Facebook today launched a social gift service. It’s rolling out to only a select few for now.

I must be one of them, because I was able to send something to my wife to try it out. But in its current form, I doubt I’m going to use it much.

This isn’t the 2.0 version of the Facebook Gifts virtual-gift service that the company shut down two years ago, by the way. In fact, the new Gifts is built upon, and run by, the folks at Karma, the gift-giving service Facebook acquired in May.

It actually looks pretty good. And while I have ordered precisely one gift that obviously has not yet been delivered, so I can’t judge the entire gift-giving process, it worked quite smoothly. I clicked on my wife’s Timeline, clicked the gift button, and off I went to order her some caramels. She can even pick her own flavor–that’s pretty cool.

In this case, I obviously know her address, so one advantage of Facebook Gifts–not having to know or ask for someone’s address–is moot in my case. What’s more, I didn’t get an automatic reminder I might get if it were her birthday, so that bit of friction elimination wasn’t a factor for me either. But it’s fast and easy to send gifts to friends, and that’s great–not just for consumers, but for Facebook, which can use a service that brings in revenues not dependent upon its brand of advertising that many large marketers are still doubtful about.

So what isn’t great, at least for me?

* A lot of the most prominent gifts are pretty vanilla–teddy bears, spa appointments, flowers, cupcakes. Maybe they’re fine products. Maybe they’re the sort of thing most people give their friends. But for a service with a tagline “real friends, real gifts,” too many of these products seem just too impersonal. Products, especially gifts, are not necessarily fungible, and all the less so for close friends for whom you’re supposed to be getting something special. And if they’re not close friends–and let’s be honest, most people don’t have several hundred close friends–I probably won’t be sending them many gifts, from Facebook or anywhere else. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Lots Of Blame To Go Around For Facebook’s IPO ‘Debacle’–But It Doesn’t Mean A Thing

Facebook CFO David Ebersman. (Photo: Wikipedia)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

When anything goes wrong, we just love a scapegoat, don’t we? Today’s scapegoat in the business world is David Ebersman, Facebook’s chief financial officer, who New York Times writer Andrew Ross Sorkin says is completely, solely, and utterly at fault for the social network’s underwhelming initial public offering and subsequent swoon in its stock price to less than half its IPO level.

Sorkin, as well as others, say Ebersman’s insistence on a higher stock price and especially on issuing more shares shortly before the offering were the key reason Facebook’s post-IPO shares not only failed to rise but steadily fell–vaporizing some $50 billion in shareholder value in the past 90 days.

But Ebersman is hardly the only culprit in the IPO. There’s also:

* Facebook’s underwriters, including Morgan Stanley and J.P. Morgan Chase. Not only did they go along with and even encourage the pre-IPO hype, but recently they cut their target prices for Facebook, contributing to today’s slide that knocked shares to under half the IPO level.

* Facebook investors. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, who knows a little something about Internet stock dynamics, says investors willfully ignored both Facebook’s own warnings about advertising revenue uncertainties and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to, yes, investors, that he would focus on building Facebook’s services over maximizing its profits.

* Not least, CEO Mark Zuckerberg. After all, the buck (or in this case, 50 cents) stops here. While finances are probably at least third on the list of his concerns, behind Facebook’s services and its employees, a CEO ultimately is responsible for such a signature event in a company’s life.

Still, regardless of whom you might think is most culpable, in the end it probably will have little impact on Facebook’s prospects. That’s because there’s an even more fundamental reason to question the singling out of Ebersman: Perhaps Facebook’s IPO wasn’t really a debacle after all. …

Read the rest of the post at The New Persuaders.

Why Do Programmers Hate Internet Advertising So Much?

Facebook ad question (Photo credit: renaissancechambara)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Another week, another pontificating programmer slamming online advertising. What is it with these guys?

The latest example is a steaming heap of linkbait from software developer and entrepreneur Patrick Dobson entitled Facebook Should Fire Sheryl Sandberg. That would be the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose purported crime is that she steered Facebook toward being an ad-supported company.

In Dobson’s telling, while Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was off at an ashram in India, onetime Google ad exec Sandberg mandated that Facebook would henceforth be an advertising company. Proof of her folly? Facebook’s now worth half of what it was at its IPO three months ago as it “continues to flounder in advertising hell.”

This, despite the fact that Facebook will gross about $5 billion in ad revenues this year, despite the fact that its current market cap is still more than $40 billion less than eight years after the company’s founding in a Harvard dorm.

Thousands of Web developers would love to flounder this badly.

Dobson’s preferred alternative is that Facebook should gradually phase out advertising in favor of–and I have to get technical here, because the bigger picture he provides is fuzzy–selling access to its application programming interface. That way, developers can build businesses like Zynga did on top of the social network in the way personal computer software developers built applications atop Microsoft’s Windows. From his post:

… There is massive value in the social graph and the ability to build applications on top of it. I believe the value is greater than all of the advertising revenue generated on the web to date. … What is the best way to monetize the social graph? To sell access to the social graph! … Developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.

I’m not really sure what “selling access to the social graph” would be, though it sounds like the result could make Facebook’s many privacy gaffes to date look tame.

But the bigger problem is the persistent implication by tech folks like Dobson that advertising is beneath them, and beneath any intelligent human being. Now, I’m no huge fan of most advertising, and all too often it is indeed lame. But there’s no doubt it can be useful at the right place and time, and even when it misses the mark, advertising is a small, remarkably frictionless price to pay for a whole lot of free Web services.

The notion that advertising is evil, to use a favorite term of Google critics, or at least useless is a longstanding meme in Silicon Valley. It goes at least as far back as Google’s founding, before it became–right–the biggest online ad company on the planet. Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously wrote in their Stanford doctoral thesis describing Google that advertising could pollute search results.

Why this antipathy to advertising? A lot of tech folks seem to believe they’re immune to the influence of advertising. More than that, they assume that no one else is much influenced by it either (despite ample evidence over many decades that ads do influence people’s attitudes and behavior). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ads are nothing more than an annoyance, an inefficient allocation of capital. Dobson accuses Sandberg of a “rampant lack of business creativity” that has “no place in centers of innovation,” later saying she should start an ad agency in Miami. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

How YouTube Turned Into a Real Business By Making Ads Optional

From my story in MIT Technology Review:

In 2008, when Shishir Mehrotra joined YouTube to take charge of advertising, the booming video-sharing service was getting hundreds of millions of views a day. ­YouTube, which had been acquired by Google in 2006, was also spending as much as $700 million on Internet bandwidth, content licensing, and other costs. With revenue of only $200 million, YouTube was widely viewed as Google’s folly.

Mehrotra, an MIT math and computer science alum who had never worked in advertising, thought he had a solution: skippable ads that advertisers would pay for only when people watched them. That would be a radical change from the conventional media model of paying for ad “impressions” regardless of whether the ads are actually viewed, and even from Google’s own pay-per-click model. He reckoned his plan would provide an incentive to create better advertising and increase the value for advertisers of those ads people chose to watch. But the risk was huge: people might not watch the ads at all.

Mehrotra’s gamble paid off. YouTube will gross $3.6 billion this year, estimates Citi analyst Mark Mahaney. The $2.4 billion that YouTube will keep after sharing ad revenue with video content partners is nearly six times the revenue the streaming video service Hulu raked in last year from ads and subscriptions. And that suggests Mehrotra has helped Google solve a problem many fast-growing Web companies continue to struggle with: how to make money off the huge audience that uses its service free.

In 2008, Mehrotra was working for Microsoft and hankered to have his own startup, but he agreed to talk to a Google executive he knew about working there instead. He decided against it—but that evening he kept thinking about how the exec was frustrated that most ad dollars go to TV, even though nobody watches TV ads. Yet at his Super Bowl party two weeks earlier, Mehrotra recalled, guests kept asking him to replay the ads. Was there a way, he wondered, to make TV ads as captivating as Super Bowl ads, every day?

The answer came to him in a flash. …

Read the complete story in MIT Technology Review.